First and foremost, quite importantly for the purpose of this post: definitions of “Persona” vs. “Identity-“

Persona

  • : a character assumed by an author in a written work
  • : an individual’s social facade or front that especially in the analytic psychology of C. G. Jung reflects the role in life the individual is playing
  • : the personality that a person (as an actor or politician) projects in public
  • : a character in a fictional presentation (as a novel or play)

Identity

  • : the distinguishing character or personality of an individual : individuality
  • : the condition of being the same with something described or asserted

Crap, that actually wasn’t as helpful as I had hoped it would be…I feel more confused now than I did before.

Nevertheless, these definitions seem to point toward the fact that a “persona” is more often something performed, or developed consciously one’s self, or performatively developed by someone else, whereas an “identity” is embedded and synonymous with a person’s actual character. For the sake of this entry, that is how we will distinguish between the two.

Moving on to THE POINT.

A while ago I tried to pitch a story to this American Life which had been inspired by the experiences of my friend- we’ll call him Jim. See, Jim was looking for a new job and applying at a few different companies. One day, reminded by a friend of his that he should be actively managing his online persona through Google search results, Jim Googled himself to see what came up when he searched for his full name.

The search results floored him. Jim was met with a cascade of search results about a man with his same name. There were pages with warnings posted by people claiming that a gentleman with Jim’s same name was a con man, that he had tricked them out of money, that he was a pathological liar, and not to trust him. The warnings described a man with a similar build, height, weight and general hair and eye color.

Jim freaked out (I think, understandably), because he was very well aware that any prospective employer would be Googling him to do a cursory background check, and if they were met with this barrage of information he might be weeded out of even a beginner pool of job applicants. He was being framed by someone he had never met, and who, due only to sharing the same name and a similar physical build, was stealing his online identity. How can you combat that in this day and age?

To this day, Jim (luckily employed by now) has to include disclaimers in applications and emails and hope that employers and business partners will take his word that he is not “that Jim” when  embarking on new ventures. If Jim weren’t already married, presumably this would also severely impact his dating and love life.

The story I wanted (and still want) This American Life to cover is this: what happens in the modern world when all of the other folks who use your name misrepresent and sometimes even defame your character online? In a modern era where so much of our persona is developed and managed online, how do we separate what is fake from what is real, and what happens when even our fabricated online personas take on a life of their own?

What do I mean by fabricated online personas? Well, is the life you represent on Facebook an accurate snapshot of what is really going on with you? One of my favorite questions to ask is why no one ever posts photos of themselves crying alone on a Friday night- because that does happen to people. It’s widely known that our online selves, or personas, generally skew toward happiness, success, beauty, and popularity rather than honestly depicting struggles, bad hair days, and loneliness.

And having control over how we are presented online is very important to most internet users- so much so that companies like www.reputation.com now exist to help you “control how you look on the internet.”  Their claim, “People searching for you are judging you, too – defend yourself against digital discrimination with Reputation.com” may seem contrived and fear-mongery, but it still taps into some very real concerns for people.

After all, our identities are very important to us, and the gadgets and devices we are using provide a mirror of our own selves which we project onto these technologies. In fact, Michel Foucault (remember our dear friend?) called these tools “Technologies of the Self,” before the internet was a thing. According to my fascinating pal Wikipedia,  Technologies of the Self are “the methods and techniques (“tools”) through which human beings constitute themselves. Foucault argued that we as subjects are perpetually engaged in processes whereby we define and produce our own ethical self-understanding. According to Foucault, technologies of the self are the forms of knowledge and strategies that “permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality.”[2]

In other words, these days, technology and social media help us to develop our online personas, which end up very deeply affecting our real identities. See what I did there?

For example, if you’re one of the millions of Indian surname Patels in the world, trying to get a unique but still relevant Gmail email address must be murder at this point. You would hardly feel like the email address represented you if you were Patel627281939464528193947273484@gmail.com

And what about the mayhem and madness that surrounded Facebook’s push to get its users to sign up for a unique direct URL to their profiles? Sure, maybe Tatianuh Xzanadu had no problems getting her direct URL with no competition, but for the rest of us, it was like an Oklahoma land run, or a crushing Black Friday sale, waiting for the clock to hit the magic time when we could hurriedly type in our first and last name and finally claim a personalized Facebook URL, a chance at allowing people to access the real me (as far as anyone’s Facebook profile actually does that).

This would all be complicated enough, except that these days not only are people with the same names being misjudged online for the behavior of others with the same name, but poor celebrities and famous authors are having their personas and online identities and even their styles co-opted. Again, for example, the gentleman who formerly tweeted as Christopher Walken under the handle “CWalken,” who delighted thousands on Twitter by impersonating the idiosyncratic and gloomy actor in his tweets about everyday observations and occurrences.

The Wrap interviewed “CWalken” and described the Twitter feed thusly,

“What’s great about the “CWalken” feed is that it sounds like Christopher Walken, yet it’s got the consistent tone and point of view that only a committed writer can achieve. “CWalken” reads as if the actor himself were emerging from a surreal haze a few times a day to note the stupidity, oddness, and weird beauty of the everyday world:”

And the mystery Tweeter, when interviewed, similarly made some really interesting points:

“The politics, tastes and observations are my own. That is — I am not trying to speak for Christopher Walken. I am simply borrowing his voice and reworking my words in his cadence. Some people crochet, I do this.”

It’s problematic because some celebrities feel that their identity and their reputation is at stake, that something they have lived a lifetime to build has been stolen from them. But in some cases, this really is high art. As The Wrap author points out, the CWalken tweets were focused and really well-written, probably much more so than Mr. Walken himself could have achieved.  Alas, the “CWalken” account was eventually shut down because Twitter maintains a policy of cracking down on impersonator accounts.

However, other online persona impersonators have had similar success, such as the perennial favorite: The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs, or one of my recent obsessions, “RuthBourdain” where Alice Waters was anonymously tweeting as a combined persona of Ruth Reichl mashed with Anthony Bourdain. That little venture  even earned Waters a humor award.

I mean, that gets really complicated. At that point we have a celebrity chef who is world renowned and celebrated in her own right, assuming the persona of not just one, but two other luminaries in the food world as an outlet for her nasty and rye, humorous side.

One last example I just came across today introduces yet another new genre, blog as Yelp Review as famous author: check out Yelping with Cormac. This Tumblr blog assumes the writing style and occasional subject favorites of Pulitzer prize winning author and presumed hermit Cormac McCarthy in order to write Yelp-style reviews of well known commercial establishments in the Bay Area. A fascinating concept, but here we have clearly gone completely down the persona-stealing online rabbit hole.

Where will the rabbit hole take us next?

Comments
  1. Owen McN says:

    I can’t wait till the day I hear your name in the credits of TAL. :)

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